Arthur Schlesinger’s 1991 book, The Disuniting of America, did not herald what has become known as tribalization, but it was influential. The media had been running articles and editorials on it for several years. Academics were up in arms that the Western Canon might become an arm of higher education rather than its heart. Commentators were certain that America’s adherence to individualism was a vaccine against the inter-ethnic controversies infecting places such as Canada, Ireland, the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. Schlesinger and others did not think the vaccine was working, and saw the nation moving toward destructive tribalization, something they were not keen to see happening.
In a now oft cited lecture, at least in our house, he was asked a question about how tribalization could be “cured.” Sex, was his answer. People intermarrying across ethnic and racial lines was the only solution he could see. That was nearly thirty years ago, and the war chant of tribalization haunts today’s headlines, editorials, and media punditry, with coffee conversation lamenting the loss of American unity. But look again; maybe it’s not such a bad thing.
The illusion of American unity was constructed on two legs: the myth of rugged individualism that promised the American Dream to those who worked hard enough to get it; the assumption that contemporary social standards of the white middle class were the magnets that held unity together. In other words, there was only one recognized tribe: the white middle class. All others were outliers who needed to be subjugated by or transformed into white middle class Americans. The illusion of unity was not consistent with history, something to which the Civil War attests, and to which the rest of history lends credence. As for the myth of rugged individualism, without the frontier it could not exist, and the remnant of it that many hold dear depends on romantic attachments to stories of pioneers, homesteading, and cowboy culture.
The unity idea was a product of the post WWII era, and, as an ideal, it lasted for about thirty years, not much in the scheme of things. It couldn’t last. What many are lamenting as the tribalization of America is the increasing political voice of those who say to the old illusion, “Look, you are not the only tribe here. We are here too. We always have been. We have our own voices and we will be heard.” What can that mean? Will we become another Italy with so many self serving voices that we can’t form a government? Another France that has nation wide strikes every few weeks, and too many republics and monarchies to count? Nigeria or Congo where intertribal warfare is the ordinary way of life? What? The current mood of those in power seems to feature a frontal attack on tribes of any kind that are unwilling to be subject to the core standards of the post WWII era. That’s how unity will be restored and maintained.
It doesn’t have to be that way, and if we can survive the next couple of years, there are ways out. Tribalization does not have to mean inter-tribal warfare. It can mean mutual recognition and respect with the intention of working together for the well being of the whole. The state of Hawaii, with all its tragic history, hiccups and errors, is an example of how that might work. It’s not perfect, nothing is, but it’s a place where no racial or ethnic class is in the majority, where ethnic pride and celebrations are shared across tribal lines, and where things get worked out amidst intense debate about how things should get worked out. The spirit of Aloha is often stretched beyond the breaking point, but it remains a unifying ideal that challenges those who break it, calling them back to a better way.
Within that context may be two more subtle lessons for the rest of us to learn. Most immigrants came from cultures that placed a high value on family and community. They adopted and took advantage of American individualism without giving up their values. So many cultures with so many ways to understand what family and community were, required that continued commitment to them had to learn to accommodate differences without giving up values. It’s not easy, but it can be done. Whatever its other worth, rugged individualism is not a cultural value on which to build a civilization. Valuing family and community is, but demanding that they adhere to only one definition is an easy path to authoritarian rule, which is not where we want to go.
Marriage between races and ethnicities is common in Hawaii. Schlesinger was right, sex works. It doesn’t erase ethnic or racial differences, but it does create bridges between them, bridges of mutual appreciation and respect. It also creates new generations of people who are comfortable being fully confident about who they are in a society of many cultures and ethnicities.
As for Western ways, I’m a fierce defender of the Western Canon, but it does not stand alone, nor does it always have to be the touchstone for defining what civilization means. Sometimes it is, but not always. There is nothing wrong with being white, or middle class, or working class, or male. Each has much to offer, much to celebrate, and much to be thankful for, but none has a right to dictate to others how and who they should be. Nor do they have a right to be in charge of how things are done. Tribalization is not, by itself, a bad thing. It can be the honest recognition of what has always been there. It can help us better understand our history through lenses other than post WWII romanticism. Consistent with the ideals on which the nation was founded, and the rule of law that has guided it, we can have a form of tribalization where cooperative tensions between them will lead to “a more perfect union” benefitting generations yet to come.